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  • Writer's pictureSmorgasbord

What Could Sport Possibly Teach Us About Business?

The world of sport and the world of business have many things in common. Mistaking aggression for being competitive, not always understanding the difference between being driven and being determined and most importantly often focussing on the result rather than using peak performance as a way of achieving the result.

Anyone working in both sports and in business sees the ironies, the similarities and the chance for business and sport to embrace and exchange the learning.

Simon Hartley who has coached both sports people and businesses, worked with Olympic swimmer Chris Cook on making him the best he could be. Cook broke down what was needed into over 100 things. A hundred things he had to get right. So he then broke it down into one simple job: "swim two lengths of the pool as fast as I can".

He focussed on performance rather than all the things he had no control over including the arbitrary number represented by the World Record, his competitors' fastest times, the type of pool he was swimming in and how good his hotel room was.

And guess what, his achievements went beyond what it was believed by many he could achieve.

As we move into a world ever more defined by data, it seems counter intuitive to talk about non-metrics based approaches; and I am not. Numbers are vital as measurement tools. Numerical proof is vital, but so is the understanding that being as good as you can be should not simply be defined by the numbers.

It is surprisingly hard to identify your own "two lengths of the pool" but if done, this absolute clarity of purpose means you can simply ask yourself at any time if what you are doing is your job. If everyone in the organisation knows their own single purpose, and it is communicated, it can really help everyone in a team or organisation achieve the best that it is possible to achieve.

Hartley also worked with a Football team in the English Premiership who tended to get ahead in games and then lose. The players thought there job was to win games so when they were ahead they subconsciously thought the job was done and relaxed. Hartley agreed with them that there job was actually: "To score as many goals as possible, and concede as few as possible".

Sounds trite doesn't it? But they started to win games again. In short, they focussed on the activities that end in success, not putting themselves under undue pressure by mostly focussing on the score. The effort to perform against all the uncontrollables can actually interfere with what we hope to achieve.

There are many other factors in success that I will come back to on another day; two of the most important as far as I can see are having fun, and maybe concentrating more on our abilities and strengths than our weaknesses, and having a playbook. Bill Walsh the legendary NFL coach said: "Before every single game, a sports coach will sit down with his or her players. They talk about the game. They discuss the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. They analyse the major challenges that the team or athlete will have to overcome on the road to success. A good coach will also remind individual players of their team role during the game and address what they personally need to do to rise to the occasion".

The best sports coaches in the world excel at this. The results speak for themselves: solid teams that meet or beat the goals that have been set, games won (or well played), and winning seasons tend to have a playbook.

Jack Daly, noted author, speaker and entrepreneur, notes that most businesses lack a coherent playbook. In fact, in his coaching, he noticed that out of every 100 companies, only two have some sort of playbook in place for their teams. And of those two companies, one of the playbooks is “garbage” and the other has one that is not much better. During his Hyper Growth Sales course at a Growth Summit Daly said:

“Most sports teams are run better than companies in this room”

Daly, speaking specifically about building a playbook for a company’s sales team, explained that the real key to a winning season is in developing coherent systems and processes. Without those, no company can play to its fullest potential.

Having these strategies in place is not only crucial in helping all team members grow and give top performance, but to recruiting other top players going forward.

Daly gave the example of respected Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, “Coach K.” Because of the nature of college ball, he loses top players on a regular basis; they graduate and/or get drafted into the pros. He noted that Coach K’s strategy for staying at the top of the league comes down to having a clearly defined playbook and strategies not only for the current team, but also for bringing in future players.

His takeaway? You need a playbook for every level of your organisation. Without one, you have no chance at over coming major challenges from, or beating the competition when they march onto your court.

I also think that the concept of "beyond" is important in both sport and business.

I am no mountaineer but apparently the hardest part of mountaineering is not the ascent but the decent. More lives lost on the way down than on the way up. Why is this? speak to any team that wins a championship and they will almost all tell you that it is harder to retain it than win it. In sport and business a sense of the mission is lost after the achievement. The driving forces change and this simply proves the rule of physics that says momentum works in both forwards and reverse.

Many great coaches use purpose jolters to reframe a game, a season or an organisation. To stretch the mountaineering analogy, both business and sport could be seen as a range of mountains rather than one "Everest". Look beyond. As Bill Walsh said, if you do the right things right, "the score takes care of itself"

Patrick Burge is Co-Founder of Smorgasbord who offer a range of business advise, services, funding and mentoring to Startup and growth companies in the UK.

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